ONLY A SUFFERING GOD CAN HELP: JAMES CONE, THEODICY, AND THE DIVINE PARADOX OF THE CROSS

I have recently been reading a lot of James Cone’s work, and have been really enjoying it. I have had to write some papers on his work and thought I would post pieces of them here. Over the next few posts I’m going to try to provide an outline of his concept of theodicy. Although I ended up reading all of his most significant works, I am still relatively new to his thought…So I would love any/all criticism, correction, or anything else.

O Silent God, listen to us, Thy children: our faces dark with doubt are made a mockery in Thy Sanctuary…Bewildered we are and passion-tossed, mad with the madness of a mobbed and mocked and murdered people; straining at the arm posts of Thy throne, we raise our shackled hands and charge Thee, God, by the bones of our stolen fathers, by the tears of our dead mothers, by the very blood of Thy crucified Christ: What meaneth this? Surely Thou, too, art not white, O Lord, a pale, bloodless, heartless thing! 

—W. E. B. Du Bois

The Bible directs us to God’s weakness and suffering. Only a suffering God can help.

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It is no surprise that the problem of evil has been a formidable philosophical threat to Christianity, especially during the 20th century. Contrasting God’s omnipotence with gas chambers and lynch mobs quickly circumscribes notions of divine love and justice. But conflicting imagery of life and death are far from absent in the Christian Scripture and tradition. “Why is light given,” Job asks, “to the one in misery who long[s] for death…and dig[s] for it more than treasures; who rejoice[s]…when they find the grave?”[1] Job’s story is a quintessential expression of experiencing despair in the face of life’s contradictions; in North America, as reflected in Du Bois’ Scripture-like lamentation to a Silent God, the genealogy of privileging Anglo-European ideals has institutionalized Black oppression and led to equally confounding theological questions.

In this series of posts, I will examine James H. Cone’s concept of theodicy based on his Black Liberation Theology. My aim is to show that experiencing the paradox of a crucified savior involves abandoning logical systems that approach the gospel as if it were disconnected from the influence of subjugated persons. In the first post I will outline Cone’s hermeneutic, relating it to the Black experience. Later, I hope to provide an overview of his theodicy, emphasizing that evil is not an abstraction, but a concrete reality. The final post will critically analyzing potential weaknesses of Cone’s theodicy.

I. Hermeneutics of Liberation: God, Christ, and the Black Experience

James Cone, raised in the small segregated town of Bearden, Arkansas, grew up learning that Whites sought to define Blacks in terms of their Whiteness. During his years of theological education, he became fascinated with Barth, Tillich, and Bultmann. But upon returning to the South, he had to reassess the “prefabricated” nature of academic theology in order to address the contradictory mistreatment of Blacks by White Christians; he found it difficult to separate his Bearden experience from his theological reflections.[2] “Why would Blacks,” Cone wondered, “accept White interpretations of Christianity that deny their humanity?”[3] Because Blackness precedes faith, he considered the assumption that theology is objective or universal to be ridiculous.[4] Instead, with his Bearden experience in mind, Cone began to see that social and historical contexts determine the questions and answers one can ask about God.[5]

 But who is God for Cone? Certainly the God of the Whites is not the one who led Israel out of slavery or who became incarnate as the Suffering Messiah. Before he could understand the absurdity of Black suffering, Cone had to learn to interpret Scripture in a way meaningful to Blacks. In his reading, liberation became central to the gospel and emancipation became Hebrew Scripture’s overarching theme. Cone had found his hermeneutical key: the Christian God is only the God of the Oppressed.[6] Upon reading the narratives, he could “not see how anyone [could] conclude otherwise,” and he used the lens of suffering to read both Testaments. [7]

Not being interested in modernist European historical-criticism, Cone read Israel’s history as the drama of God’s mighty acts of grace, judgment, and liberation.[8] In the narrative of Israel’s deliverance from the crushing hand of Egypt, God’s control over history is revealed by God’s event-based political action on behalf of the weak.[9] The words of the prophets, Cone argues, are in solidarity with the Mosaic tradition by demanding for justice for orphans, widows, and the poor:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;

Cease to do evil, learn to do good;

Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.[10]

 Moreover, the priestly narrative is conceptually significant: compiled during Babylonian captivity, its purpose was to make theological sense out of Israel’s history of oppression. For Cone, remaining faithful requires seeing God’s relation to the abused; the purpose of creation is not oppression, but God’s liberating love.[11]

Regarding the New Testament, Cone recognizes its Jewish context within unjust Roman jurisdiction. Because his theology is Christian, he regards Jesus as Scripture’s beginning and end,[12] but Jesus’ work is one of liberation: Christ inaugurated God’s reign, pronouncing the death of oppression.[13] The offense of the cross is not merely spiritual—as philosophically-minded Whites think; it involves socio-material reality. Jesus’ exorcisms, for instance, brought liberation to the wretched of the land; just as he overthrew thievery in the temple, exorcisms overthrew everything countering the fulfillment of humanity.[14] For Blacks, that “the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them,” resonates today as message about the ghetto and injustices done in the name of democracy.[15]

By narrating the Bible through the Black experience of suffering, Cone provides a logical basis for Blacks to remain faithful to God despite centuries of oppression. Here, if Christians are to use the language of the cross of Christ, they must make the meaning of crucifixion a reality. The Black experience in America describes this reality: “If God’s love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far?”[16] But this question posed by James Baldwin is still left unanswered; for this reason, I will next consider Cone’s concept of theodicy.


[1] Job 3:20-22, (New Revised Standard Version).

[2] James Cone, God of the Oppressed, Revised ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 5.

[3] James Cone, For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church, Where Have We Been and Where

are We Going? (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1984), 6.

[4] James Cone, God of the Oppressed, 41.

[5] James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 40th Anniversary ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2010), xxiii.

[6] Ibid.,, 58

[7] James Cone, God of the Oppressed, 47.

[8] Ibid., 58.

[9] Ibid., 59.

[10] Isaiah 1:16-17, (New Revised Standard Version).

[11] James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, 20th Anniversary ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1989), 79.

[12] James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 116.

[13] James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, 34.

[14] James Cone, God of the Oppressed, 71.

[15] James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, 36.

[16] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Dell, 1964), 46.

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